It is unusual to see a fee award imposed against a plaintiff in a Title VII lawsuit, even more so when that plaintiff is the EEOC.  But that is exactly what happened in EEOC v. Peoplemark, Inc., with a divided Sixth Circuit upholding a staggering $750,000 fee award against the EEOC.

This case is really a tale of two lawsuits.  According to the majority, the EEOC pursued a meritless claim and was dilatory in its prosecution of the lawsuit.  The dissent, by contrast, portrays the EEOC’s actions as reasonable litigation conduct against a barrage of obstructionist tactics by the defendant.  Indeed, Judge Carr (sitting by designation) issued a 50-page dissent, which is one of the longest dissents we have seen at the Sixth Circuit in quite some time.

The majority opinion, written by Judge McKeague, relied heavily on the standard of review, which is abuse of discretion for evaluating the propriety of the fee award.  That perspective justified the Court in agreeing with the district court’s characterization of the record at hand.  The majority also deferred to the court’s calculation of the fee award and its inclusion of expert fees (which comprised over $500,000 of the total amount).  At the end of the day, the majority agreed with the district court that the EEOC’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable or groundless, and that the EEOC continued to litigate after it clearly became so. Such conduct warranted the imposition of a sizeable fee award.

Although this decision is not a sanctions decision per se, much of the analysis is similar in many respects to some of the sanctions cases at the Sixth Circuit that we have recently reported on.  This case can also be seen as part of an overall willingness of the Court to be more receptive to claims for fee awards, whether they be based on sanctions or on the fee shifting provision of Title VII.  It is thus yet another good reminder to litigants to ensure that their case is properly prosecuted or defended, because the consequences can be severe if they are not.